Obituary: Nina Youshkevitch

Marilyn Hunt
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:08

THE RESPECTED New York City-based ballet teacher Nina Youshkevitch was a rare remaining direct link with the legacy of the great choreographer Bronislava Nijinska. She was a protegee of Nijinska both as dancer and as teacher.

In recent times, Nijinska's daughter and heir, Irina Nijinska, encouraged Youshkevitch to reconstruct lost Nijinska ballets in which Youshkevitch had danced. Both were eager to bring to light the breadth of Nijinska's contributions beyond the best-known works, Les Biches and Les Noces. Starting in 1990, working from memory and the methodical Nijinska's notations, Youshkevitch staged Ravel's Bolero (the original ballet made for Ida Rubinstein in 1928), the poetic abstract Chopin Concerto, and the Bride's solo in the Stravinsky Le Baiser de la Fee, and was prepared to do more.

The daughter of the distinguished playwright and novelist Semyon Youshkevitch, she left Russia with her family in 1921. They settled in Paris, where from the age of seven she studied ballet under leading teachers of the time, Olga Preobrajenska, Lubov Egorova, and Leo Staats. She also graduated from the Conservatoire de Paris with a first prize in piano. She was chosen by Nijinska from the age of 10 for her companies, dancing such roles as La Garconne in Les Biches and the Bride in Le Baiser de la Fee.

On a tour by a second Colonel de Basil company to Australia and New Zealand in 1936-37, she was befriended by the British dance writer Arnold Haskell, who chronicled the tour in Dancing Around the World (1937), singling her out among the younger dancers as a true ballerina, with her sense of the grand manner and her musicality. With an equally young Igor Youskevitch (no relation) she danced Aurora, Odette, and the Princess in Nijinska's sophisticated fairy tale The Hundred Kisses.

Youshkevitch then joined Nijinska at the Polish Ballet as prima ballerina. The ballets made for her included Chopin Concerto, which called on her virtuoso turning ability for expressive purposes and won the Paris Choreographic Prize. She danced in the ballet at Covent Garden.

Youshkevitch emigrated to the United States in 1940, where she became ballerina of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet and danced Aurora in the first full-length Sleeping Beauty in the US in 1945, in San Francisco.

In 1947, she began teaching in Nijinska's studio in Hollywood. She started her own company in 1952, choreographed for television, and taught highly regarded classes in New York from 1977 until June this year. Her students included the rising young Jennie Somogyi of the New York City Ballet.

Youshkevitch's first reconstruction of Nijinska's work was the Bride's solo from Le Baiser de la Fee in 1990. She staged Bolero in 1995 for the Oakland (California) Ballet, and was to restage it at La Scala, Milan, for an Ida Rubinstein evening in 1999. Chopin Concerto came next in 1995- 96 for Goucher College in Maryland, and the second movement for Oakland Ballet in 1997, with the complete ballet planned to follow in 1999.

It is to be hoped that the legacy of Nijinska will be carried on, in spite of the death of Irina Nijinska in 1991 and of the soft-spoken, regal, and dedicated Nina Youshkevitch, who liked to say, "Nijinska was absolutely amazing because she had so many ballets, and no two look alike."

Nina Youshkevitch, ballet dancer and teacher, born Odessa, Russia 7 December 1920; married Robert Johnson (one son); died New York 3 November 1998.

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